Clock ticks down on Brazilian president's impeachment vote

AFP , Tuesday 10 May 2016

Supporters of President Dilma Rousseff
Supporters of the government of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff hold banners reading "Temer out, traitor!", referring to Brazilian Vice-President Michel Temer, and "Stay darling" as they demonstrate in Brasilia, on May 9, 2016 (Photo: AFP)

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff faced what could be her final hours in power Tuesday on the eve of a Senate vote on whether to suspend her from office for an impeachment trial.

Rousseff, who is accused of illegally juggling government accounts, maintained the appearance of business as usual, her official agenda featuring routine meetings in Brasilia with officials and a women's group.

But Brazil's first female president looks increasingly likely to be forced to step aside when the Senate votes Wednesday on whether to open an impeachment trial, triggering her automatic six-month suspension. The result of what's expected to be a marathon voting session may not be final until Thursday.

If she is pushed out, her vice-president-turned-enemy Michel Temer will take over.

Adding to the instability shaking Latin America's most populous country and biggest economy, the leaders of the Senate and the lower house spent Monday in open conflict on whether the vote should go ahead at all.

Late Monday, the interim speaker of the lower house, Waldir Maranhao, backed down and reversed an earlier attempt to order the Senate to halt proceedings and return Rousseff's case to the lower chamber.

That eased what was looking like an institutional crisis, with possibly the Supreme Court being needed to come in as a referee.

However, there was no patching over the divisions left in Brazil by the trauma of what Rousseff is daily denouncing as a coup d'etat.

Police are responding to heightened tensions by building a huge metal barricade outside Congress in the capital to separate rival groups of protesters during the Senate vote. A separation corridor 80 meters (yards) wide and more than a kilometer (half-mile) long will also be enforced.

A square where major government institutions are located will be declared a "national security zone" and made off-limits to the public, Brasilia security authorities announced.

Huge anti-government protests and smaller but still significant pro-Rousseff rallies have been a regular feature in Brazil over the last year but so far have passed off peacefully.

While Rousseff prepares for her Senate showdown, the man who would replace her continued to work on assembling a new government.

Temer is a veteran center-right politician but has rock-bottom popularity and would inherit the crumbling economy which is now in the deepest recession Brazil has seen for years.

He would also face the wrath of Rousseff's leftist Workers' Party which has held the presidency since Rousseff's predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, came to power in 2003.

Temer has made no public pronouncements in the immediate run-up to the Senate vote, but Brazilian media reports suggest he is negotiating with allies on ministerial posts and on measures that Congress would pass to try to breathe some life into the economy.

The Senate impeachment trial could last for months, running through the Olympics which will be hosted from August 5 in Rio de Janeiro -- the first ever held in South America.

Fears over the Zika virus, high crime in Rio, pollution in the sailing and some swimming areas, and a budget crunch are already hurting preparations for the Games, and there are worries that political instability could overshadow the event.

Rousseff is accused of using accounting tricks and unauthorized state loans to boost public spending during her 2014 re-election campaign, thereby increasing her chances in a tight race.

She argues that the same accounting techniques were used regularly by previous governments and fall far short of an impeachable offense.

Calling Temer a coup plotter and insisting that the impeachment is being used by the country's right as a way to topple the left without having to fight an election, Rousseff vows she will not go quietly.

Further complicating the outlook for Brazil is the still unfolding huge corruption scandal centered on state oil company Petrobras.

Dozens of high-ranking politicians and some of the country's richest businessmen have been probed or already convicted on bribery and embezzlement charges in the scheme, which flourished under Lula's presidency.

Rousseff is being probed for alleged obstruction of justice, Lula faces money laundering charges, and some of their fiercest opponents, including the runner-up in the 2014 elections, have also been probed.

A probe has not been opened against Temer but he has been named as an important participant in the Petrobras corruption by one of the government's star witnesses in the probe, Senator Delcidio do Amaral.

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